Tips to prevent back injuries during winter weather

iStock shoveling universal

Winter weather and snow hazards can be dangerous. No matter your age or fitness level, it’s easy to get injured while shoveling snow.

If you have an existing back or heart condition, consult your doctor and consider using a snow blower or hiring someone to shovel your snow before attempting to do it yourself.

If you are shoveling snow, here are four tips to prevent injury.

Evaluate your readiness during pandemic lifestyle

The pandemic has many of us staying at home with less exercise and possibly more stress. Weight gain is not uncommon during normal winter months and this has increased during the pandemic. If you carry extra weight, you may already be burdening your musculoskeletal and circulatory systems. Check your body mass index (BMI). A BMI greater than 25 is classified in the overweight range and greater than 30 indicates an obese range. Obesity is causally linked to back strain so excess weight can make anyone prone to getting hurt during infrequent, strenuous exercise such as snow shoveling.

If you find that it is safe to shovel, make sure to warm up your muscles, just as you would before a gym workout. Don’t jump out of bed and start shoveling without stretching and warming up any tight muscles. This will help prevent unnecessary injury.

Dress in warm layers

After light stretching, ensure you are suitably dressed for the harsh temperatures. Proper clothing is important. Dress in layers that may include a heavy coat, pants, leg warmers, hat, gloves and earmuffs. Most importantly, to avoid injuries on slippery surfaces, wear waterproof boots with a good tread.

Use proper technique

Once you are ready, using proper technique is vital to preventing back injuries. An ergonomic shovel — one designed to interact with your body safely and efficiently — with a curved or adjustable handle to minimize bending and with a lightweight plastic blade helps to reduce the weight that you push and lift. Hold the shovel close to your body, and put one hand closer to the blade to spread the shoveling exercise evenly. Whenever possible, push snow to the side, rather than lifting. If you have to lift, keep the shovel load light, especially if the snow is wet. Bend with your knees, not your back. Use your leg muscles to provide you with power. Square your shoulders and hips to the shovel without twisting your body. Use your whole body to turn instead of twisting your waist.

Take your time

Finally, pace yourself. I treat injuries, sprains and herniated disks because people try to do too much too quickly when shoveling. Take a break every 10 to 15 minutes to stretch your arms and legs to stay flexible. Most importantly, be honest in your self-evaluation. If you spend much of your day seated, carry extra weight and tension, or have known physical issues, consult with your doctor. Arrange for someone to shovel your walk and driveway, and postpone that shoveling until next year while you tackle those lifestyle changes and practice self-care that will positively impact your health.

Dr. Kusuma is a UChicago Medicine Medical Group Physician. UChicago Medicine Medical Group physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners are not employees or agents of University of Chicago Medical Center, UChicago Medicine, UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial or University of Chicago.

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